Weekly Letter to the President
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INAUGURATION, January 20, 2009
Drunk in its stale air
For two hundred years.
Fettered in mind and body,
The soul, the safe escape
To let me breathe the cries
Of my heart singing
Tears of mel-an-choly.
The tears flow free today
Washing the stains of blood
And sweat in brotherhood.
Raise the curtain then an'
Let the world look in
On this promised land --
We breathe free today.... almost.
--- Arshad M. Khan
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.
--- Native American proverb
May 4, 2018 (posted May 9, 2018)
Mr. President: When Corinth and Megara, both allies of Sparta went to war, Athens
sensed opportunity and soon formed an alliance with Megara. It precipitated the First
Peloponnesian War (c 459 - 445 BC) and Athens soon turned the alliance into control
of Megara. When peace returned, so did Megara into the Spartan fold. In 1941, Nazi
Germany broke its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and launched the
massive Operation Barbarossa against it. In both instances, the violators paid
dearly. By the end of the Peloponnesian wars, a long saga, Athens had been
reduced from its preeminence as the most powerful Greek state to a defeated vassal
of Sparta. We know what happened to Germany. In one case it took over fifty years,
in the other just four.
History may not repeat itself but here we are in the 21st century and another
agreement is about to be broken. Visiting leaders from France and Germany, UK's
Theresa May on the phone .... all have advised against such a course and all to no
avail. Donald Trump insists on pulling out of the Iran deal. Every 120 days he is
supposed to sign a waiver to lift sanctions related to the nuclear deal. Signing in
mid-January, he warned it would be the last time unless the agreement was changed.
The major European leaders have failed to dissuade him, and have now gone so far
as for one to call his decision insane. They are right for the consequences could be
disastrous, particularly as Iran continues to fulfill its obligations under the deal which
keeps a check on any development of nuclear weapons.
First for some background: Starting with the US invasion of Iraq, the political order in
the Middle East arranged by Britain and France post World War I quickly
disintegrated. National borders became porous, and state institutions severely
stressed due to civil war or through non-state actors like ISIS -- although the latter
has been greatly weakened the ideology remains -- and Syria has faced a
multi-pronged insurgency. Out of chaos rather than design, Iran has emerged a key
By offering help to Syria and Iraq and through aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran's
influence now extends over a wide swathe of the Middle East, from the Gulf to the
Mediterranean. Moreover, in Yemen, it has pinned down the Saudis in an expensive
civil war against a popular (Houthi) rebellion to which it has provided a measure of
If this implies Iran is highly militaristic with a huge military budget, one could not be
more wrong. In 2016, the latest year for which figures are available, Iran spent $12.7
billion on defense whereas Saudi Arabia laid out $63.7 billion, about five times more.
So how has Iran succeeded in magnifying its influence?
Not surprisingly, it has been a blundering US, staggering around like a drunken giant
trampling any semblance of order. In the Iraq war, it overthrew a government and
nation that was a countervailing force against Iran, and put in place an elected one
which, given Iraq's Shia majority, was Shia. Some of the Shia leaders had sought
refuge in Shia Iran from Saddam's efforts to keep this majority at heel. In this they
had common bond with the Kurds up in northern Iraq, who fighting for an independent
Kurdistan, had been gassed by Saddam.
The Shia government in Iraq now looks to Iran. For example, last year the Kurds held
a vote on independence from Iraq to form a separate Kurdistan. The Kurds voted for
independence laying open the real possibility of civil war. It was Iran with its muscle in
the region who dissuaded the Kurds, even forcing them to surrender Kirkuk, a city
with a mixed Kurd and Arab population, to the central government.
Then Saudi Arabia's rejection and organized boycott of Qatar left it little choice but to
seek closer ties with Iran, with which it has common natural gas interests. For Iran, it
is a first foothold across the Gulf, right next door to Saudi Arabia's oil, which happens
to be in a Shia-majority province.
In Lebanon, Iran has long supported its Shiite brethren, whose awakening dates to
the 1980s Israeli invasion and its refusal to leave the South. First forming Amal to
protect their rights, this downtrodden minority is now the most powerful force in
Lebanon, now well-known as Hezbollah. It has been successful against Israeli arms
twice. First, in forcing them to eventually leave southern Lebanon in 2000 -- Israel's
interest was the water from the Litani river -- and a second time when Israel attacked
Lebanon in 2006 and Hezbollah forced it to pay a high enough price that withdrawal
became the sensible option.
Iran's stock in Syria has soared both through the help given to Assad's forces by
Hezbollah but also through a substantial contribution by its revolutionary guards. This
battle hardened force in concert with the tough Hezbollah and the Syrian army form
the ground forces to compliment Russian air power. Together they have given
President Assad victory and made Russia the arbiter in the region. The alliance has
also been helped by a disaffected Turkey, wary of US help for Kurds, and the
antagonistic, fundamentalist, and now also threatening, Saudi Arabia, which has
become close to Israel.
A harbinger of things to come was the Sochi meeting between Vladimir Putin, Turkish
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the
future of Syria. The US was notable only in its absence. Russia is now actively
wooing Turkey, and any belligerence by the Trump administration towards Iran will
only draw it too closer to Russia, perhaps even signing a defense pact, although Iran
would prefer neutrality.
Aside from religious kinship and its use of proxies to protect itself from the Saudi bloc,
Iran has also chosen to develop sophisticated missiles, a comparatively cheaper
alternative to huge military expenditures. These ensure an attacker will pay a heavy
price, and is one good reason why Benjamin Netanyahu would rather the US do the
dirty work while he continues to make inflammatory and deceptive speeches about
Iran. Unfortunately at present, the US is also exposed. Worse, its vulnerability is in a
region where Iran holds a better hand. Moreover, a seriously destructive attack on
Iran will bring back chaos to the whole region and sow the seeds for another ISIS
and/or similar group(s) with the potential for exporting their philosophy to Europe and
What this analysis shows is exactly what the Europeans have been telling Mr. Trump.
It makes sense to talk while keeping a lid on Iran's nuclear program through the
current deal. "Jaw, jaw is better than war war," said a statesman whose bust
occupies a prominent position in Trump's office.